Ivan Orkin has never been one to play by the rulebook—the brash, Yiddish-tongued Long Islander first built his food-world fame not in his native New York, but 6,000 miles away in Tokyo, where he stirred up Japan’s devout ramen congregation with his light, silky slurp bowls in 2007. Fast-forward seven years, three Ivan Ramen locations—including Gotham West Market breakout star Slurp Shop—and critical props in two hemispheres, and Orkin is finally ready to launch his first full-service U.S. restaurant, a narrow slip of a ramen-ya on the Lower East Side. “I run four restaurants,” Orkin says, “but this is my spot. This is my flagship.”
The vibrant 60-seat parlor tangles together the noodle virtuoso’s all-American roots and Japanophile leanings: A chrome-edged counter and vinyl stools recall old-line diners, blond-wood banquettes look plucked from a late-night izakaya, and a massive, papier-mâché mural in front is a kaleidoscope of Dolly Parton, John Wayne, waving lucky cats and Technicolor geishas.
And the menu follows culture-crossing suit, natch: “I’ve got my feet planted in both cultures, cuisines and languages,” Orkin says. Along with his seminal rye-flour noodles (in both shio and shoyu varieties), there’s four-cheese mazemen, like ramen gone Kraft, and fried chicken hearts—double-dipped à la KFC—with ponzu honey mustard. The downtown spot won’t serve rice bowls—you’ll have to shoulder up to Hell’s Kitchen for that smoked-whitefish donburi—but it does offer composed small plates, like preserved hen eggs and braised ox tongue.
“It’s a youthful food and a youthful neighborhood,” Orkin says of his new home base, and he hopes to take advantage of that liveliness with a 25-seat backyard, fitted with a massive tiled mosaic boasting the Kewpie mayo mascot, a giant squid and a spilling bowl of noodles. Spilled milk is nothing to cry over, but a lost bowl of Orkin’s superb ramen would definitely warrant a tear or two.